The Sketch: Miliband is charming, clever and ill-informed

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The Independent Online

It may be too early to write off David Miliband as prime ministerial but if he gets anywhere near it, I'll eat my hat. Quite a meal, considering the size of my head.

Clever and charming as he is, he feels the need to be clever and charming in everything he says. You can see him searching around for clever and charming things to say.

He made a statement yesterday, in his characteristic way. Popular, polysyllabic, cross-party. But there was a trap in it that he may need another 10 years to see. The more Miliband allowed himself to be charmed by the Tories whom he had charmed, the more he showed us how important he felt it was to be charming and clever. The clearer it became that the manner came before the matter. Bird flu, then. Or "avian influenza" as he preferred to call it (such a concern to "the wider poultry stakeholder community").

Without the charm, here were some of his answers. They weren't entirely convincing, I have to say.

How did the infection get into a closed poultry unit? "If there are lessons, it's important we draw from them."

What is the likelihood of future outbreaks? "I wouldn't want to say I could see rising numbers of incidents. But there are risks. It would be wrong to say there won't be future incidents."

Is the 14 sq km exclusion zone too small? "Heightened awareness is a good thing."

Why should the taxpayer pay compensation to Bernard Matthews? Why can't farmers rely on commercial insurance? "I think it's fair to say that discussions are continuing."

What number of deaths in a poultry shed should trigger a requirement to report to the department? "I'm nervous of putting a figure on it."

Is it possible the chicks came from Hungary? "The chicks all came from within this country." (How did he know that? Were they cheeping Rule Britannia? Or was it something Bernard Matthews' Government Relations Office told him?)

If organic flocks have to be taken indoors, is there enough flexibility in the planning sysytem to allow the poultry to be treated humanely? "I think... the answer ought to be 'yes' in that common sense and practicality ought to guide us." (But procedure will always take precedence over practicality.)

And finally, the question of whether the transport of the slaughtered turkeys will be secure. Will not bits of blood, bone and carcass spill out into the road from the truck and infect, perhaps, constituents? Or people, as we call them? Absolutely not. Arrangements were "failsafe". They were "foolproof". The bodies were being transported in "sealed, leak-proof lorries".

But then in his final answer he revealed the trucks were covered with a tarpaulin. Not exactly what we understand by "sealed" and "leak-proof".

All in all, not what you'd call leaderly. Aside from the charm and the cleverness, he was surprisingly empty, ill-informed, and misleading. Maybe he will go far after all.

simoncarr@sketch.sc

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